After a great day exploring the Anza-Borrego Desert wildflower super bloom, I decided to head back out to Borrego Springs a week later to hike Palm Canyon to see the Washingtonia filifera oasis. To enjoy Anza-Borrego’s most famous hike, it needs to happen in the spring before it gets too hot. The weather worked in my favor for that day, as it was slightly overcast and temperature was only in the low 80’s F, compared to the mid 90’s F the week earlier.
While what is shown in the photo below isn’t the Washingtonia filifera oasis of Palm Canyon, it does mark the location of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor’s Center. These palms were actually planted there and provide shade for a picnic area. Due to the popularity of the wildflower super bloom, no parking could be found at the visitor’s center where I preferred to start my hike up Palm Canyon.
Instead, I would begin my hike directly from the trail head. By driving through the Borrego Palm Canyon Campground and parking at the day use area, you will cut out almost 1.5 miles of walking. This does come with a cost of course, as parking right at the trail head requires a $10.00 day use fee. This is the only hike in Anza-Borrego that has a fee. In the end I found the $10 and shorter hike to be well worth it, as I still needed to get to San Felipe Canyon before sunset and I never would have made it had I hiked the extra 1.5 miles.
The Palm Canyon hike is a short one and can be done with little difficulty. You only gain 530 ft in elevation over a 3-mile roundtrip through the slot canyon. While there are many interesting things to see if you enjoy the desert, the Washingtonia filifera oasis is the highlight. It is part of a riparian environment which makes Palm Canyon so unique. Even a non-palm tree lover has to admire the beauty found in the palm oasis.
While the peak of the wildflower super bloom had already come, there were still many plants in flower. Hiking the trail at this time of year after a very rainy winter added to the rewards of Palm Canyon.
Bigelow’s Monkeyflower (Mimulus bigelovii var. bigelovii) could be found growing all over in the sandy washes. Small in stature, these wildflowers grow on you the more you see them.
Pima Rhatany (Krameria erecta).
Schott’s Indigo Bush (Psorothamnus schottii).
Desert Globemallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua).
Like this person below, many photographers from around the world were in the Anza-Borrego Desert to shoot the wildflower super bloom. A tripod? My beginning photography class professor would not have approved.
Familiar desert staples like Fouquieria splendens var. splendens (first three photos) and the Silver Cholla (cylindropuntia echinocarpa) were flowering along with the many wildflowers.
Your typical view at the beginning stages of the hike. A wide open area with a mostly dry creek bed.
As you hike farther into the canyon, the walls narrow. The hills are filled with Fouquieria splendens var. splendens and in some areas form an Ocotillo forest. In the photo below, take notice of the old, decaying palm trunks.
Below you see mesquite trees collecting these old palm trunks.
Where did all those dead palm trunks come from? The Washingtonia filifera oasis that you hike up to. Palm Canyon drains 22 square miles of mountains and desert, starting from the top of Hot Springs Mountain at 6,535 ft. I read online that means there is 18 miles for the stream bed to gather runoff as it flows down the slot canyon. Back in 2004, a flash flood went through Palm Canyon with a huge wall of water knocking down and ripping out a large portion of the Washingtonia filifera from the oasis. You can imagine how large that wall of water had to be to rip full grown palms out of the ground and transport them miles down the canyon. Now the old palm trunks litter the trail to remind hikers how powerful Mother Nature can be. They also make for great bridges across the stream.
A couple of really beautiful boulders that didn’t seem to fit in, as they looked so different from all the other rock in the area. The first one below looks like it landed there from outer space.
Love was in the air. It was spring time after all. These are Master Blister Beetles.
Harvestman Spiders were everywhere.
As you follow the flowing stream uphill, just past the palm trunk bridges, you get our first good glimpse of the palm oasis hiding in the canyon.
A little closer and you begin to see why it can be called a riparian zone. This is a scene not commonly found in a desert.
Washingtonia filifera growing right along the water’s edge. It is good to see these younger palms growing around the palm oasis to replace all the ones that were washed away in 2004. Prior to 2004, Palm Canyon had one of the largest native Washingtonia filifera collections in habitat.
A stone step part of the trail that takes you closer into the Washingtonia filifera oasis.
The first of a few waterfalls that Palm Canyon has. This was the prettiest in my opinion. It was so odd for me to see a year-round waterfall in a desert.
When you reach the palm oasis, you will notice why this is classified as the most popular hike in Anza-Borrego. It was busier than normal, as I was hiking during the wildflower super bloom as I pointed out earlier. So it took some patience to avoid having people show up in my photos like below.
I think this little guy was surprised to see flowing water in the desert as well. It is never too early to get your kids experiencing the great outdoors.
Hikers exploring the first parts of the Washingtonia filifera palm oasis.
So let’s talk about this palm that inhabits the oasis in a little more detail. Washingtonia filifera is commonly called the California Fan Palm or the Desert Fan Palm. It is the only palm native to California. Thanks to the popularity of its cousin Washingtonia robusta (Mexican Fan Palm), Washingtonia filifera is somewhat misunderstood and incorrectly identified. Most the fan palms you find growing in Southern California are Washingtonia robusta. This is because the Mexican Fan Palm is faster growing and handles the coastal conditions much better.
Before getting to the palm oasis, let me show you closeup some of the things that separate this much more attractive palm from its cousin, the Mexican Fan Palm. First up are the fibers on the leaves. The species name, filifera, comes from the Latin word meaning “thread-bearing.” Washingtonia filifera never loses these fibers, whereas Washingtonia robusta does as it ages.
The petioles and the base of the petioles on Washingtonia filifera are always just green and the teeth running up the petiole are always orange colored. Washingtonia robusta always has a brownish colored patch at the base of the petiole, which it can carry up the petiole as well. The teeth on Washingtonia robusta tend to be more brown in color.
The last thing that easily separates the two palms is that the leaves on Washingtonia filifera are a grayish-green color. The leaves of Washingtonia robusta are a brighter, darker green. Once you see the two side-by-side, the coloration difference is quite noticeable. In the photo below you can see that the leaves have a grayish-green coloration to them.
As you make your way closer to the thickest part of the palm oasis, you get a wonderful glimpse into just how beautiful the surrounding landscape is in Palm Canyon. The water, the rocks, the sand, the palms, the shrubs, all work so amazing together. Of course the various wildflowers that were in bloom only added to it.
I called these palms the “tres amigos.” The heart of the palm oasis lies just behind them.
The dense population of Washingtonia filifera where I was headed is hiding just behind the large boulder and wildflowers.
A desert waterslide.
This old palm trunk from the flood is being held in place by a large boulder that fell on it.
At the 1.5 mile marker, you reach the main parts of the palm tree oasis in Palm Canyon.
Below you see the heart of the Washingtonia filifera oasis in Palm Canyon. You would have a hard time finding a rival scene in another desert. The Washingtonia filifera with their thick skirt of dead leaves cloaking their trunks is something you won’t see in cultivation. I read that the native Cahuilla Indians called the Palm Canyon located close to Palm Springs “Tev ing el we wy wen it,” or “a round flat basket closed up at the top, that is hung up.” You can see that description works here too at this Palm Canyon by Borrego Springs.
Closer view of a Washingtonia filifera skirt right along the trail.
Inside the dense palm grove, it is heavily shaded and the cool air makes for a great retreat from the hot desert sun. Just guessing, but it felt at least 10 degrees cooler under the trees.
Palm tree litter. The local Native Americans in the area would use the dried leaves to weave into sandals, baskets and rope, and of course, to be used to make thatch shelters; a worldwide use for palm fronds.
Time for the money shots. Looking up from within the oasis. These grand old trees could tell us many stories. Botanists guess that the Washingtonia filifera may live for around 200 years. Some of the trees in this thicket could be approaching that age.
In the photo below you see the roots of the Washingtonia filifera growing right into the steam. Some plants can go for many months or even years without water. Palm trees cannot. Washingtonia filifera is a relic from another time. A time when Anza-Borrego was a vast grassland patrolled by Saber-tooth cats dating back as far as 10 million years ago. Without this stream in Palm Canyon, these palms could never be here.
After spending a good 30 minutes exploring and photographing the palm thicket, I continued up past it in order to get a great view looking back down the slot canyon. The oasis I am showing in this post is actually just one (although by far the largest) of three total palm oases in Palm Canyon. Almost everyone turns around at the first oasis, but you can continue up the canyon for another 1.5 miles. The hike gets much harder and it does involve some scrambling around rock, as the trail will disappear on you at times. I had to be at San Felipe Canyon to try and catch a sunset, so sadly I couldn’t continue past this point below, as time would not allow.
On the way back to the car, not long after you see your last Washingtonia filifera, there is a trail that heads off towards the right. This is the alternative single track route back to the campground. It sees much less hiker traffic than the main trail I took up the canyon. This route allows you to see more desert vegetation that the main trail does not have.
This alternate route back only adds a few hundred meters to the total distance, but it does climb up the canyon about 100 feet. This provides for great views into the valley below.
The Palm Canyon trail in the Anza-Borrego Desert is a highly recommended hike. There are not many like it in the world. So load up a Camel Back with lots of water, bring a camera, and set out to enjoy a true desert oasis.
While leaving Borrego Springs and heading out to my final stop for the day, San Felipe Canyon, I spotted this beautiful planting of Washingtonia filifera in front of a church. Before closing out this week’s blog post, I had to share them. The second photo shows the base of one of those palms and how fat the trunks of a Washingtonia filifera can get while in cultivation.